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Art, Culture and Heritage:

Among the Great Ancient Civilizations

By Steve Lorton

Washington State is a mosaic of cultural influences that are equal to any in the nation. From our native Tribes and the vital Hispanic migration, to the European settlers who came here to start a new life harvesting our vast timber and fishing industries, Washington’s resources have provided a unique and hearty quality of life for all who have journeyed here for centuries.

In Seattle, you will find myriad cultural districts. Our international district has the densest Asian population north of San Francisco while nearby Ballard boasts some of the best lutefisk this side of Norway.

When it comes to culture and heritage, Washington State can hold its own with China, Egypt and Rome. It’s true. Since time immemorial, documented for well over 10,000 years, our Tribal nations have buzzed from the sheltered inlets of the Pacific, along the mighty Columbia River, and into the flatlands and mountains of the eastern parts of our state. The customs, art forms and legends of those first Washingtonians survive today.

As you might expect, with diverse cultural heritage, comes diverse art. Art galleries and bandstands are abundant and feature the finest indigenous, cultural and modern creations by local musicians and artisans, who have been heavily influenced by our uniquely Washingtonian attitude. Yes, we are perhaps most famous for our outdoor recreation, forests and oceans, but come to Washington with the expectation of having your perceptions modified and you will not be disappointed.


Native Heritage: Western Washington

Here’s a quick must-see list of western Washington’s native cultural centers and museums. These provide an excellent introduction to tribal history and a chance to see authentic native art and artifacts. Most cultural centers also have unique gift shops featuring carvings, basketry, beadwork and jewelry made by talented local native artists.

The Squaxin Island Museum (in south Puget Sound, near Shelton) presents a number of spectacular exhibits that bring the story of The People of the Water to life. Stroll through the awe-inspiring Hall of the Seven Inlets, visit with native artists and view cultural items found at an ancient Eld Inlet village site. During the summer, the Tribe’s canoe carving shed is open to visitors.

The Suquamish Museum & Cultural Center (between Kingston and Bainbridge Island on the Kitsap Peninsula) is rated by the Smithsonian Institution as one of the best historical museums in the Northwest. This area is the ancestral home of Chief Sealth (namesake of the city of Seattle) and every August, Chief Seattle days are celebrated with salmon bakes, arts & crafts and dancing.

Out on the far western tip of the state (and the mainland United States), the Makah Indian cultural and research center at Neah Bay has a magnificent repository of indigenous art and artifacts. Of the more than 60,000 pieces in the collection, you’ll see objects uncovered from the Ozette Indian village, partially buried in a mudslide 500 years ago. Come late August, the Makah Nation invites everyone to visit for three days to help celebrate Makah Days, as they have for the last 85 years.


The Burke Museum is a must

Numerous museums around the state offer glimpses into the vibrant cultures of the native peoples, none perhaps more extensive than the Burke Museum on the University of Washington campus in Seattle.

With over twelve million specimens and artifacts, the Burke is a vast repository of information about the state’s archaeology and ethnology. Founded by members of the Young Naturalists’ Society in the late 19th century, the Washington State Legislature designated this the Washington State Museum in 1899.

Set aside at least half a day for the Burke. It’s the state’s oldest museum and offers an excellent overview of our region’s natural and cultural history.


Native Heritage: Eastern Washington

Head east. Stretching out over 2,185 square miles is the Yakama Nation, established by treaty in 1855. Like all Native Tribes, the Yakama people have been here since time immemorial. Their nation is unified and wealthy, home to more than 30,000 people.

Visit the Yakama Nation Museum and Cultural Center. Excellent exhibits e
xplain the nation’s rich history and customs. You can enjoy traditional preparations of indigenous foods like salmon, venison and huckleberries in the restaurant, attend the Heritage Theater, buy native art and jewelry in the gift shop, and visit the archives. You may
even choose to spend the night with your family in a teepee on the grounds.

If you’re in the northeast corner of Washington State, stop by the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture. The Museum is proud of its collaboration with the region’s four Northern Plateau Tribes: Colville Confederated, Kalispel, Coeur d’Alene, and Spokane. In addition to exhibits that focus on American Indian culture, history and art, and objects from the museum’s nationally recognized collections, the museum also hosts special events to celebrate the tribes’ rich culture.


Trail blazing not required

When Lewis and Clark traveled the waters of the Columbia River in 1805, they were amazed by the commerce on the river. In fact, though they are often credited with blazing a trail to the west coast, they actually used trade routes that the Tribes had been using for centuries.

And the trade and cultural exchange of those initial civilizations continue today. With an abundance of food and resources, the indigenous people were living a life that they felt was as close to paradise as mortals could get. Those feelings persist.


Immigrants drawn to the lure of discovery

The waves of immigration in the mid 19th century brought with them a rich and far-flung assortment of people and cultures. New citizens flooded in from Eastern America, Europe, and Asia.

On the east side of the state, settlements tended to be largely Euro-American, Japanese and Filipino. They came to farm and ranch for the most part. The venerable architecture of Walla Walla, Yakima, and Spokane attests to the dominant cultures of these settlers.

Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians flocked to Washington in the late 20th century along with Ethiopians, Eritreans, Sikhs and other people from the Indian subcontinent. Onion-domed churches appeared with a growing Russian population. Through the years immigrants have happily led double lives, retaining the best of their old traditions while plunging into the American way of life, as expressed in Washington. That spirit continues.


Victorian splendor is seen everywhere

Tucked into Washington’s southeast corner, you might be surprised to discover that the town of Dayton has 117 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Grand residences and commercial buildings in Queen Anne, Italianate, and Carpenter Gothic styles rose up between 1880 and 1910. And the impeccably restored depot, built in 1881, saw many a wide-eyed new resident step off to begin an exciting life steeped in the values and customs brought west from the Victorian homes and houses of the states to the east of the Mississippi River.

In the opposite corner of the state, on the Olympic Peninsula, you discover Port Townsend, whose entire downtown core has been recognized on the National Historic Registry. Driving up and down and throughout the city’s business and residential districts, it’s easy to become unstuck in time. This delightful result of old timber money and seafaring heritage alongside today’s artist lofts and trendy shops is worth at least a day or two of exploration.


Vast natural resources attract attention

The early settlers who came to eastern Washington arrived coming west by land. And along the coast, wave after wave of newcomers were making their way into the state.

Scandinavians came to fish the cold, rich waters of the Pacific and cut the forests; thick with trees so huge some even hollowed the stumps, added roofs and lived in them. Italians settled on farms covered with our rich, alluvial soil, supplying our growing cities with fresh produce. Sephardic Jews arrived, masters of culinary commerce, many of them responsible for establishing Seattle’s Pike Place Market.

One of Washington’s noteworthy destinations, Leavenworth is a visible tribute to the popularity of the Bavarian culture. Located in the rugged Cascade Mountain Range on US-20, you might get disoriented and believe you’ve been transported somehow to a village at the base of the Swiss Alps.


Pacific Coast fishing lures Nordic migration

Swedes, Danes, Finns and many Norwegians came to Washington in search of a better life. To this day, May 17th−Norwegian Independence Day−is an enormous celebration in Seattle’s historic neighborhood, Ballard. Here, the Nordic Heritage Museum chronicles the life and work of Scandinavian settlers.

Lutefisk and pickled herring are not hard to find. For the uninitiated, the Scandinavian pastries are a better bet. Across Puget Sound, in the enchanting little town of Poulsbo, you’ll think you sailed into a fjord and turned back the clock a century on another continent.


Washington is rich in Asian influences

From elegant gardens, fantastic cuisine and prosperous agriculture, the Japanese influence on Washington can be found in every corner of the state.

In 1886 the Miike Maru became the first Japanese steamer to inaugurate a regular commercial service between the U.S. and Japan. Many Japanese immigrants gained local fame as estate gardeners in Olympia, Tacoma, Seattle and Everett. Today, east meets west in Washington gardens.

Enormous rocks, contorted trees artfully pruned and constantly groomed, and Koi ponds replace the parterres and topiaries common to European gardens.

Where else in the world can you walk down a sidewalk and see a grand Tudor mansion rising behind an enormous chunk of White River granite, over which arches a lacy and venerable Japanese maple, casting its delicate shadows on the stone?


The “original” farmers markets

In eastern Washington just south of Yakima you’ll discover rich farmland and several “original” farmers markets. Here, Filipino and Japanese farmers have tilled the soil and sold fresh, field ripened produce from roadside stands−especially during fall harvest−to locals and visitors alike for a hundred years or more.

For generations, people have flocked from all corners of the state to buy in bulk, take home and preserve these goods. The wholesome freshness of the food and sincerity of these proud farmers will fill your heart and lift your spirit.

As evidence of this region’s strong Japanese heritage, Washington’s first Buddhist temple was established near here in Wapato in the early 1940s.


Vibrant Chinese community

The Chinese came in a steady flow, starting even earlier than the Japanese, some making their way up from San Francisco. Seattle’s Chinatown is one of the most vibrant in the United States. Restaurants from dim sum to full service hum with family life. Firecrackers explode and dragons dance on the
Lunar New Year.

Merchants offer everything from huge slotted spoons for dishing up noodles to antiques and the finely painted porcelains of the gods of longevity, prosperity and happiness.

In 1996 Washington elected Gary Locke our state’s governor, making him the first Chinese-American governor in US history. In 2009, President Obama named Locke as the next secretary of the Department of Commerce.


Enjoy the music, food and culture of the Hispanic community

Likely the largest and most influential group of new Washingtonians is the Hispanic community. As migrant workers came north to harvest produce, some have stayed and gained citizenship. Families have grown and now South Central Washington’s Hispanic community is large and vibrant—
more than 33% of Yakima’s population is Hispanic.

Mexican restaurants are numerous. Groceries and specialty stores stock Hispanic commodities, gift items and clothing. You can tune into several area radio stations and hear Hispanic music and commentary in Spanish.

The best way for any outsider to experience the color of this subculture is to attend Yakima’s Cinco de Mayo Fiesta Grande at 3rd Street and Chestnut, May 3 and 4. Mariachis will strum their guitars and bow their violins, food will be everywhere, Baile Folklorico dancers will click their heels and fan their skirts, crafts will be sold… you’ll wonder if you’re in Guadalajara.

Art: A byproduct of Culture and Heritage

Two ideas stick out here. First, if America is indeed the Great Melting Pot, Washington State is second to none in having its fair share of the ingredients. It is a cosmopolitan state. And second, if Culture is the byproduct of Heritage, then certainly Art is the byproduct of Culture. And Washington State is a haven for artists and art lovers of all disciplines.

The Puget Sound Metropolitan Area has a well-deserved reputation for the arts. Seattle opera, ballet, symphony and a plethora of live theaters have put the city on the short list of the best in the world. The Seattle Art Museum (SAM downtown, Asian Art Museum and Olympic Sculpture Garden) and Frye Art Museum should be your first stops for visual art. Bellevue’s Arts and Crafts Fair, like its museum, draws visitors from all over the country.

The Edmonds Arts Festival is one of the oldest and largest in the Northwest. Tacoma’s Museum of Glass is the talk of hot shops in Europe. Famed glass artist Dale Chihuly, whose work is displayed in galleries throughout the world, makes his home here. And the Washington State History Museum, also in Tacoma, offers an excellent overview of the state.


All of Washington contributes to the mix

But don’t stop there. Crisscrossing the state, from Bellingham to Walla Walla, Spokane to Vancouver, artists perform and create in this state with confidence, conviction and cutting-edge courage. Any visitor would be hard-pressed in any town not to find interesting galleries where innovative and highly collectible art is displayed and sold.

Who would have thought that you could see Rodin sculptures at the Maryhill Museum of Art in eastern Washington, or that Bellingham in the northwest corner of the state has the largest per capita number of artists in the nation, after Santa Fe, New Mexico?

Throughout Washington, local theater and dance companies regularly perform the classics and the avant-garde. Choruses ring out year around. Standing room only is the norm.


The art of architecture

Architecture is important to Washingtonians. From the grand, century-old residences of Browne’s Addition in Spokane and Dayton, to the monumental buildings around Puget Sound, to the weathered barns of the Palouse, walking tours and photo opportunities abound.

A pioneering spirit, both sensible and full of flare, coupled with weather that could be challenging, has produced architecture, early and modern, that was built to last, designed to view and cherish.

For an eye-opening glimpse at the number of sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places, go to http://www.nationalregisterofhistoricplaces.com/wa/state.html and click on any county. You’ll come up with more to see than you have time for. Or stop at any visitor information center and say, “We’d like to see some neat old buildings.”

Long before historic preservation was chic, Seattleites were saving Pike Place Market, artists in La Conner and Port Townsend were buying up and refurbishing historic homes, Bellingham’s Fairhaven was a hive of activity, and Walla Walla was hosting summer concerts in an antique bandstand that has never been out of use.

In northwest Washington, nearly every old historic building in tiny Edison has a storefront gallery with living quarters for the resident artist upstairs or out back. Washingtonians built to last, built for beauty and built for function. Appreciation for art here is not a
fleeting fancy.


Seattle’s Modern Architecture

If your taste is for modern architecture, don’t miss the new Seattle Public Library (architect, Rem Koolhaas) and the Experience Music Project (architect, Frank Gehry). Both these extraordinary buildings feature cutting-edge architectural design. Shutterbugs won’t be disappointed either!


High tech and low key

What is perhaps most amazing about this state, home to Microsoft, Boeing and Starbucks (to name a few), is that as this dynamic population reaches across oceans, growing wealthier and more sophisticated by the day, there is a sense of place and its people here that makes it inimitably Washington.

Walk into the lobby of any office building and you are likely to find the large and sparkling glass confections of Dale Chihuly along with a Makah Mask or a beaded Yakama buckskin venerated in a glass case.

Next to that may be a moving abstract or surrealistic painting by one of the artists of the Northwest School: Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, or Morris Graves. These artists put Washington on the world map of modern art in the third and fourth decades of the 20th century.


The Washington experience is where you find it

Our art isn’t confined to galleries and lobbies, cases or frames. Out where the wind roars through the Douglas firs and cedars and the rain falls softly, visit any estate garden and you’ll find European alleys, Japanese rocks and pools, sweeps of native plants, all planted and maintained with a super-sensitive eye for design. Still, there beside it all is the ubiquitous moss, left to flourish with a respect for nature that transcends human order.

A century-old windmill or dilapidated barn, leaning into the wind, standing in the midst of the rolling wheat fields of eastern Washington is a photo opportunity suitable for framing.

The robust love that Washingtonians feel for their state’s heritage, culture and art is big, bold and beautiful. It’s hard not to get caught up in it. Come and see
for yourself.

Can you resist it? We dare you to try!


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